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Free Jazz For All

Listen to people like Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett long enough and you start thinking avant-garde jazz is either an assortment of outer-space explorations or introspective therapy sessions. Go to extremes like the wigged-out Corea or the self-indulgent Jarrett and you lose the music in a tidal wave of notes or a tangle of emotions.

Pianist Joanne Brackeen, on the other hand, has managed to find the yin-yang balance that's eluded so many of her contemporaries. In her own quiet way Brackeen just says no to constrictive rules but still plays free jazz that anyone can appreciate. She sketches melodies yet never keeps form close to the vest. Brackeen's wildly dissonant music swirls together bold tonal colors, unexpected motifs and jumping rhythms. Listening to the pianist is like watching an internal storm with lightning bolts of mood and pulse all generating from the earthiness of Brackeen herself.

How to account for her unusual style? Brackeen claims she hasn't listened to outside music in more than a decade. "I don't even have time physically to hear my own music," she says.

Instead, Brackeen looks ahead by looking within. As she composes, the tunes come quickly but not in any order--sometimes the middle or the end of the tune arrives first out of the ethereal mist. Because her songs emerge in such piecemeal fashion, Brackeen has to practice patience. "I can always feel when the tune is in the shape of what I want it to be," she explains, "which is why I put the tape recorder on when I'm playing. Sometimes the parts may not come out in the right key at first. I usually have some idea of how the tune will end up, but sometimes I get fooled. I have a much different energy when I write than when I first played it. Creating is like growing a plant. It depends on whether you prefer the newly bloomed or the fully blossomed. It's all part of the process."

Brackeen's instinctive composing style isn't something she discovered overnight. Largely self-taught throughout her thirty-plus-year career, Brackeen gradually honed her craft by performing with groups led by Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, and Joe Henderson. Under their tutelage the pianist was given unlimited freedom to explore her freewheeling ideas. Eleven albums as a leader solidified her stature in the minds of the critics, who have unanimous praise for highly experimental jazz ventures like Fifi Goes to Heaven, her now out-of-print 1987 release. (Brackeen's new effort is Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume 1, a solo piano record.)

Lately Brackeen has been expanding her orchestral approach to the acoustic piano into string pieces for quartets and quintets. One of them is a variation on "Estilo Magnifico," a tune from Fifi Goes to Heaven.

Despite her classical leanings, Brackeen has no desire to try composing for opera. She says she's not fond of the form because it limits vocal experimentation. Brackeen would consider, however, writing a piece that stretches the voice to its tonal limits.

While the pianist has built her career around free jazz, she's still savvy enough to intersperse standards like "Stardust" with her own daring compositions. Brackeen turns this timeworn classic evergreen again with an interpretation you might call "Meteor Dust." The pianist mixes tumbling bursts of chord clusters with percussive bite and lengthened melody lines but never dispenses with the song's spacy swing.

Why does Brackeen even consider treating such a worked-over tune like "Stardust" when she could be challenging people all the time with her own compositions?

"When they hear the standards," she says, "they'll want to hear my music."
It's also an indication of how Brackeen continues to reach listeners without sacrificing her own exploratory work. The pianist seems to be aware that confounding listeners isn't a requirement of avant-garde jazz.

Joanne Brackeen will perform at Chuy's on Wednesday, March 14. Show time is 9 p.m.

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Sheri Shembab